In an interesting way, David Owens’s thoughts on the nature of duty simultaneously address many important aspects of the subject and neglect certain, and important, potential realities. To begin with, Owens presents basic conceptions of duty as understood by most human beings. Citing Hume, he asserts that a sense of obligation usually exists because people are driven to do what is essentially good or what prevents harm. Obligation in this context is adherence to acting ethically, and it is difficult to challenge this. This is the “natural” obligation perceived by most people as a kind of ethical imperative. What Owens does not address, however, is how this presents something of an Aristotelian idea of virtue ethics; obligation in this sense translates to human beings complying with a virtue removed from themselves. This is reinforced by Owens’s claim that viewed in this ethical light, obligation is good for its own sake, which in turn also reflects a Kantian conception of duty as a primary guide for behavior. The lack in Owens’s thinking here then goes to a failure to discuss this “removed” quality of obligation, or its state of being as determined by compelling people to act virtuously. More exactly, the thinking does not refer to the basis of good as good, and as understood by all as such. This is likely implied, but it still seems to be a possibility to be considered in any discussion of duty.Owens then breaks obligation down into its natural and artificial forms. The “natural,” as noted, goes to duty dictated by senses of rightness, while the artificial are those duties which in some way create a desirable order. An example is driving on the right side of the road in the UK; it is an artificial obligation that generates order and prevents the harm inevitable if that duty is not in place. Ironically, this view of obligation, perhaps because it is more pragmatic, is more reasonable and appealing. There is no mysterious quality of a moral agent creating the duty, and because it represents the basic need for human beings to establish and comply with set norms. Owens discusses this as an external motivation for duty, but the point remains that it is nonetheless valid and rational. He then relates this to friendship, which has for him qualities of both the natural and the artificial. We seek friendship bonds because they provide advantages to us, which in turn creates senses of obligation, and reciprocate the good we receive. Here, the natural is in a sense supported by the artificial, as friendship may be seen as a structure in which practical needs converge with ethical matters. This too is rational, provided there is an acceptance of good as an existing force or demand in itself.
When Owens discusses the nature of promises, however, there is a greater emphasis on what the conversation ignores. He and the host examine the foundations of promising as a kind of contract, which is rational. One promises to do a thing for another and, when the thing is done, all expectations are met. Promising is then a voluntary obligation, and a complex one, and because the idea that expectations must not be disappointed or harm of a kind ensues. According to Owens, Hume holds that promises are made and kept because they add structure to social order, and that obligation in promising has a value of its own is reiterated. However, it is possible to discern something absent here, and despite promising as also both natural and artificial. Owens admits to the element of control as making promising attractive to all concerned, but he does not reflect on what may motivate duty in this and other forms; namely, that performing duty pleases the individual and/or is a need in itself. Promises grant power to those to whom a promise is made but this may gratify the one promising just as much. There are times in most lives when people actually seek to be obligated, not because they feel ethically compelled to do good, but because they require the directive to do so. Similarly, while friendship is inherently reciprocal, it is reasonable to assume that it exists mainly because individual needs are able to be satisfied within it. This possibility of individual need as prompting obligation in most forms is further supported by Owens’s claim that many good things are ignored which could be done. While Owens views are intelligent and interesting, there remains the fact that simple desires for gratification or satisfaction are not discussed as encouraging duty.
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